“JOHN CARLSON! Yeah, buddy! I love you!”
"Attack” would be too strong a word, but the big fella has real purpose in his eyes as he charges John Carlson in a hallway at St. Louis’ Stifel Theatre. There’s no time to get out of the way, so Carlson plants his feet, eats the bear hug and poses for a selfie. Satiated, the jolly bro fires off another “You da man!” and jogs off. It all goes down in about 10 seconds.
“Do you know that guy?” I ask.
“Nope,” Carlson says.
Media Day at the 2020 NHL all-star weekend was supposed to be a break from logging monstrous minutes on the Washington Capitals blueline, weathering nightly waves of opposing forwards. But since a fan slipped into a restricted area, Carlson got thrust back into Defenseman Mode for a moment, and he flashed his Norris Trophy-worthy ability to diffuse a situation. His heart rate didn’t seem to spike by a single beat.
It seems nothing or no one can touch Carlson. He’s reached a level of offensive production not seen since the early 1990s. Logging 24-plus minutes a night on a Caps team loaded with ultra-talented finishers, Carlson scored at a 100-point pace in the season’s first half. By mid-March, when the NHL paused its season because of COVID-19, he’d predictably slowed down, but he still led Alex Ovechkin, the second-highest scoring player on the team, by eight points and was tracking for 89 overall.
The last NHL blueliner to reach 90 points in a season was Ray Bourque in 1993-94. If Carlson had finished out the season and cracked 90, he would’ve become just the ninth NHL defenseman to do it, and he would’ve accomplished the feat in a lower-scoring era than all but one other 90-point D-man. The NHL was averaging 6.04 goals per game in 2019-20. During the 25 other 90-point seasons spread among the eight blueliners, the league averaged fewer goals per game just once: 1969-70. So Carlson’s numbers were particularly weighty. It’s a shame he won’t get to play the final 13 games on Washington’s regular-season schedule.
On top of the shimmering offensive numbers, Carlson maintains a secondary role as a penalty-killer, remains one of the league’s higher-volume shot blockers and will be counted upon in the post-season, if there is one, to play almost half of every game as a true do-it-all defenseman. That type of profile makes him a legitimate Norris Trophy threat, in the same tier as the Nashville Predators' Roman Josi. Carlson isn't the shoo-in he seemed to be in the first half, but he's a virtual lock to be a finalist. His most common defense partner of the past two years, Michal Kempny, has no problem openly campaigning for Carlson to win the award and calls him “the best defenseman in the NHL right now.”
So what’s changed to make this season particularly magical? This isn’t some feel-good tale of a late bloomer. Carlson entered the league as a high-pedigree blueliner, drafted 27th overall in 2008, and famously scored the tournament-winning goal in overtime for Team USA at the 2010 world juniors. Entering 2019-20, he’d already topped 55 points three times. From 2017-18 through ’18-19, he had more points than every blueliner except Brent Burns and ranked sixth in points per 60 minutes among defensemen with 1,000-plus minutes played at 5-on-5.
Carlson finished fifth in Norris voting in 2017-18 and fourth last season. He was not only a known commodity, but a known star commodity. That makes his 2019-20 even more remarkable. He turned 30 in January yet has levelled up to another echelon.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Capitals right winger T.J. Oshie. “Ever since I got to the Caps, you could tell he wasn’t fully matured yet, and his game wasn’t at the level it was going to get to yet. Over the last four-and-a-half years now, he seems to keep growing, keeps getting better, keeps getting smarter and more experienced. He plays a lot of minutes. Everyone talks about the points he has, which are pretty amazing and pretty special, but with his play all around, playing PK, playing big minutes defensively, playing against other teams’ top units and top lines, in my eyes, he’s the best defenseman in the league.”
The only defenseman to crack 90 points in his 30s is Bourque, who did it twice. Carlson’s pace put him right there with Bourque. This is supposed to be the age at which Carlson’s game starts to decline. Why isn’t that happening?
One possible explanation is homework. Carlson has an ideal mentor and sounding board in coach Todd Reirden. Before taking over the head job, Reirden was Washington’s assistant/associate coach under Barry Trotz for four seasons, during which the former NHL
defenseman worked closely with the defense corps. The Caps finished with a top-two defense in two of those seasons and top-10 three times. Even as head coach now, Reirden is known for sitting down and reviewing specifics with each member of his blueline, and he’s done that a lot with Carlson.
“We’re at the top of our sport, so anyone in the NHL, you don’t get 10 percent better, you don’t get five percent better,” Carlson said. “And he’s very good at just...whether it’s thinking about one thing, watching something or practising something, just trying to get a feel and diagnose a play. To be able to, one practice, worry about playing the puck on your backhand, or one practice just worry about making that first pass around the net. If you really think about one thing, you’re probably going to get a lot out of that one thing.”
Statistical evidence does suggest Carlson, even at 30, is improving at various little things. On a per-60-minutes basis, he’s putting the most shots of his career on net and recording his most primary assists of any season, while he’s also absorbing the fewest hits of his career. He’s creating more offense while doing a better job eluding opponents. When Carlson’s on the ice at 5-on-5, the Capitals as a team have averaged the second-most shots on goal of his 11-season career. It appears he’s gotten smarter and more efficient when he has the puck.
That’s not Carlson’s theory, though. He credits his huge year to forces out of his control.
“I’m a pretty even-keel guy, and that’s always helped me in my career,” Carlson said. “But I feel like I’ve just really fed off having a good start, getting some fortunate bounces, some good luck, and we’re scoring a lot of goals. When we move the puck, as defensemen, to the type of caliber and skill we have up front, good things are going to happen. One thing I always say, whether I have a lot of points or I’m cold and don’t have a lot of points is, especially as a defenseman, there are just so many factors that go into it. Sometimes you’re on the positive or negative side of that.”
It does help that Carlson plays on a Caps team with Ovechkin tied for the league lead in goals and three players who were on pace to crack 30 goals. Carlson also gets a dream deployment on the power play. Playing 4:01 per night with the man advantage, he averaged eight seconds more than any other NHL defenseman this season. He also posted the highest shooting percentage of his career at 7.9. So there’s some merit to the luck argument.
The guess here, however, is Carlson doesn’t know about those stats. His case for luck comes from a place of modesty and a willingness to look at the world around him and believe he’s fortunate rather than special. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an athlete as devoted to charity work as Carlson is. He and his wife, Gina, are frequent visitors to children’s hospitals, such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. When the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018 and Carlson got his day with it, he didn’t do what most winners do and bring it to his hometown (Colonia, N.J.). After a stop at Bethesda Fire Station 6 in Maryland, Carlson wheeled the Cup into the atrium of Children’s National Hospital in D.C. for a rally. Then he took it upstairs to show it to kids who were too weak to get out of their beds. That night, he brought it to an outdoor fundraiser to combat childhood brain cancer, an event for which he and Gina helped raise more than $100,000 in ticket sales. And the day with the Cup is just a quick snapshot of the Carlsons’ philanthropic work.
For Carlson, “With great power comes great responsibility” rings true, but he says he’s driven by more than that. Since he and Gina had their two sons, he’s gained a greater appreciation of what sick kids go through and how lucky he is to have two healthy ones.
“I’ve been around a little bit now to (the point) where some kids are out of the hospital, and they’ll come up to me, ‘Hey, remember you brought (the Cup)?’ ” Carlson said. “It’s real heartwarming to see or to hear those stories of warriors. These kids are insane. We get sad when our kids get a cold or something and, ‘Oh, they didn’t sleep too well last night because they were a little sick.’ But to see not only the kids but the families, too, who are battling through all that emotionally…me and my wife, it means a lot to us, and we try to project our feelings in helpful ways.”
Maybe it was the Cup win, or fatherhood, or the fact he’s made an estimated $47.4 million in his career, but Carlson speaks with a calm sense of perspective. He doesn’t see himself as bigger than the game and doesn’t see the game as bigger than real life. Perhaps that’s why he’s become so much more refined as a leader on the ice.
Kempny describes him as a joy to play with, someone who “coaches his teammates,” and he feels Carlson saved his career. When Washington scooped Kempny prior to the 2018 trade deadline for a third-round pick, he had been a regular healthy scratch in Chicago, and his confidence was shattered. He formed a surprisingly great top pairing with Carlson that keyed the Cup run, and Kempny credits Carlson for helping him improve as a player and believe in himself again.
Breaking in new blueliners has become a crucial part of Carlson’s job description. This season alone, that has included Jonas Siegenthaler, Martin Fehervary and Tyler Lewington, who entered the year with 28 combined NHL games, not to mention Carlson’s newest partner, trade-deadline acquisition Brenden Dillon.
“John’s been phenomenal,” Reirden said. “It’s been great to watch. I had a really strong feeling about John going into this season after some discussions this summer talking about him taking on a bigger leadership role. I really thought it was going to help push him to a different level of play on the ice and also help his leadership off the ice. And he’s done an amazing job with a really new defense corps outside of one or two guys. We’re not perfect in any aspect of our game right now, but we’re in a good spot because of John Carlson. He’s received more recognition than he has in the past, and it’s all well deserved.”
The question now is how much recognition Carlson receives when it’s time to hand out the NHL awards. In a mid-season mock vote, the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association named Carlson its Norris Trophy winner. But that doesn’t make him a lock. Voters still have some holes to poke in his game. A popular expression when evaluating an offense-minded Norris hopeful is, “he ain’t Rod Langway.” It applies to Carlson. His offensive game is stupendous, but he grades out as more of an average defender. It’s high-event hockey when he’s on the ice. The Capitals generate many chances when he’s out there but also allow a bunch – the most shots per 60 minutes of his career.
He’s also not always tasked with shutting down every team’s elite forwards. His most common forwards faced this year at 5-on-5 are Sean Couturier, Travis Zajac and Phillip Danault– all shutdown forwards. In other words, Carlson is being treated by opponents as the threat rather than someone to challenge with their threats. They send their best defensive players out in hopes of neutralizing him. So his success is impressive more in the sense that he’s producing offense against great defensive players rather than stymieing elite offensive ones.
Luckily for Carlson, the award is the Norris, not the Langway. It goes to “the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position,” and Carlson's overall impact, even if it skews heavily on the offensive side, makes him a contender.
“It would mean a lot,” Carlson said. “I think it would mean more later on in my life, looking back on a career. I would love to win it. Everyone would love to. If it happens, it happens. I think I’m good at not thinking about too far ahead of me and just trying to focus on what’s happening in front of me, because I don’t really have too much time to do all that thinking. So I’m just worried about how I’m playing. Where I want to be physically going into the end of the year and the playoffs is really my top priority.”
Spoken like a man who has experienced a lot and matured a lot over the past few years. Carlson appreciates everything, expects nothing and just might walk home with something whenever this season ends, whether it’s a Norris, another Stanley Cup or both.
This is an edited version of a story that appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Inspiration Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.